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Is My Church Really A New Testament Church?
Author: Erkel, Darryl

Is My Church Really A New Testament Church?

Many churches claim to base all that they do upon the New Testament, but the sad fact is that most churches claiming to be "evangelical" practice very little of what the Scriptures have patterned for local assemblies. To mention just a few, please consider the following and ask yourself, "Is my church practicing this?"

1. The New Testament teaches that the local church is to be pastored and taught by a plurality of scripturally qualified men known as elders (Acts 20:17,28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1-4). This being true, why are most of our churches only pastored by one man (i.e., "the pastor")? Why do so many churches today divide their leadership into a hierarchy of "senior pastor," "associate pastor," and "board of elders" – particularly when the New Testament makes no such distinctions among congregational leaders?

"Despite all the New Testament says about church elders, the subject has been deeply misunderstood or ignored. Many evangelical churches that sincerely claim to base their church structure on holy Scripture do not even have a body of elders. These churches have ignored the pastoral oversight of the church by a plurality of elders – a concept plainly set forth in Scripture – and replaced it with a one-man pastor, which is inadequately defensible by Scripture. Even most Presbyterian churches (and others that claim to be governed by a scriptural plurality of elders) have redefined church eldership so that its original purpose and noble standing have, in practice, been eclipsed by the ordained minister and his staff" (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership [Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1986] p.12).

2. The New Testament teaches that church shepherds are to arise from the church’s own rank and assembly (Acts 14:23; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:5). This being true, why do our churches always look for potential pastors outside of their present congregations? Why aren’t our churches raising and training their own men for pastoral leadership? Is our current practice of forming a "pastoral search committee" based on Scripture or the traditions of men?

"In New Testament days, local ministry consisted of people called to serve and lead in their own locality. Ministry used to be performed by ministers who came from within the community, rather than by those who came from the outside and who stayed for only a few years before moving on to the next church. Today the church looks to a school or agency hundreds of miles away for its ‘pastor.’ Further, the turnover rate among pastors is tremendous with many remaining in a church for less than five years" (Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995] pp.239-240).

3. The New Testament teaches that the congregational meeting is to be a place where Christians exercise their spiritual gifts and encourage one another to love and good deeds (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-14; 14:12,26; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 10:24-25; 1 Peter 4:10-11). This being true, why do most of us not say or do anything within the church service? Why is coming to church primarily a spectator event instead of a participating event? Why have we placed our responsibility of mutual edification and ministry into the hands of professional clergymen?

"Are we giving the members of the church an adequate opportunity to exercise their gifts? Are our churches corresponding to the life of the New Testament church? Or is there too much concentration in the hands of ministers and clergy? You say, ‘We provide opportunity for the gifts of others in week-night activities.’ But I still ask, Do we manifest the freedom of the New Testament church? . . . When one looks at the New Testament church and contrasts the church today, even our churches, with that church, one is appalled at the difference. In the New Testament church one sees vigor and activity; one sees a living community, conscious of its glory and of its responsibility, with the whole church, as it were, an evangelistic force. The notion of people belonging to the church in order to come to sit down and fold their arms and listen, with just two or three doing everything, is quite foreign to the New Testament, and it seems to me it is foreign to what has always been the characteristic of the church in times of revival and of reawakening" (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times [Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989] pp.195-196).

4. The New Testament teaches that the local church is to be edified and ministered to by all the members present – "for the body is not one member, but many" (1 Corinthians 12:14; cf. 14:12,26-31; Ephesians 4:16). This being true, why do our church services focus on only one part of the body (i.e., "the pastor")? Where, in the New Testament, is it taught that one’s man ministry or sermon is to be the focal-point of church gatherings?

5. The New Testament teaches that every Christian is a minister and priest before God (1Peter 2:5,9; Revelation 1:6). This being true, why do we continue to make such distinctions as "clergy" and "laity"? On what scriptural basis do we divide the body of Christ into two classes of people: "clergy" and "laity"? Moreover, if every Christian is a minister, why are we not allowed to minister to one another within the church service?

"The New Testament simply does not speak in terms of two classes of Christians – ‘minister’ and ‘laymen’ – as we do today. According to the Bible, the people (laos, ‘laity’) of God comprise all Christians, and all Christians through the exercise of spiritual gifts have some ‘work of ministry.’ So if we wish to be biblical, we will have to say that all Christians are laymen (God’s people) and all are ministers. The clergy-laity dichotomy is unbiblical and therefore invalid. It grew up as an accident of church history and actually marked a drift away from biblical faithfulness. A professional, distinct priesthood did exist in Old Testament days. But in the New Testament this priesthood is replaced by two truths: Jesus Christ is our great high priest, and the Church is a kingdom of priests (Hebrews 4:14; 8:1; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6). The New Testament doctrine of ministry rests therefore not on the clergy-laity distinction but on the twin and complementary pillars of the priesthood of all believers and the gifts of the Spirit. Today, four centuries after the Reformation, the full implications of this Protestant affirmation have yet to be worked out. The clergy-laity dichotomy is a direct carry-over from pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism and a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood. It is one of the principle obstacles to the Church effectively being God’s agent of the Kingdom today because it creates the false idea that only ‘holy men,’ namely, ordained ministers, are really qualified and responsible for leadership and significant ministry. In the New Testament there are functional distinctions between various kinds of ministries but no hierarchical division between clergy and laity" (Howard A. Snyder, The Community of the King [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977] pp.94-95).

6. The New Testament teaches that the Lord’s Supper is a full-on meal within the context of joyous, brotherly fellowship (Acts 2:46; 1 Corinthians 10:16-22; 11:18-34). This being true, why have we turned the Lord’s Supper into an elaborate and even mystical ritual? Why is our current practice of the Lord’s Supper more like a funeral than a festival? Why do we believe that only the "ordained" clergy have the right to "administer the sacraments" when the New Testament does not teach this?

"Still more significant is the fact that what Paul calls the Lord’s Supper in this passage [1 Corinthians 11:20-22] is in fact a full meal – not simply the ‘elements.’ That Paul has in mind an entire meal is evident from his statement ‘one is hungry, another is drunk.’ It would make little sense for Paul to speak this way about the ‘elements’ (bread and wine), for obviously one’s hunger could never be satisfied with a small broken piece of bread, nor could one become ‘drunk’ on a shot-glass of wine. There can be no question that the Lord’s Supper consisted of an actual meal and that the rich Christians were partaking of it before the poor arrived (perhaps due to employment constraints on the part of the poor)" ("Rethinking the Lord’s Supper," Part 3, New Testament Restoration Newsletter [July 1992/Vol.2, No.3] p.2).

"There is a common assumption among God’s people that as a result of their calling, pastors have conferred on them the sacramental presence of Christ. The ordained are donned with a holy aura not attainable by ordinary, common believers. This myth has created a priesthood within a priesthood . . . In other words, we have created a fiction that people of the cloth carry with them the mantle of Christ because of the holy order that they enter . . . Unless we shift the priestly role from an elite core to the entire body of believers, the ministry cannot be returned to the people of God. The New Testament nowhere emphasizes a group of gifted people who uniquely mediate the presence of Christ. The focus is on a sacramental people, not a sacramental pastor . . . It is noteworthy that nowhere in the New Testament is a special group set apart to protect and administer the sacraments. Leadership does not have an exclusive role in liturgy and worship . . . The Lord’s Supper is a community meal, and Paul expects the community to act consistent with the sacrificial death of Jesus displayed in these elements as the purchase price of the new community. To put the meal into the hands of a few would destroy the community sense that all participate in the sacrifice of Christ" (Greg Ogden, The New Reformation [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990] pp.76-81).

7. Jesus taught that His people were not to give or take upon themselves honorific titles which set them apart from the rest of the Christian brotherhood (Matthew 23:6-12; Mark 10:35-45). This being true, why do so many church leaders today give themselves such lofty titles as "Reverend," "Minister," "Bishop," "Pastor," and "Senior Pastor"? Why do they feel it necessary to preface their names with such titles – particularly when the New Testament forbids it?

"There were prophets, teachers, apostles, pastors, evangelists, leaders, elders, and deacons within the early church, but these terms were not used as formal titles. For example, all Christians are saints, but there is no ‘Saint John.’ All are priests, but there is no ‘Priest Philip.’ Some are elders, but there is no ‘Elder Paul.’ Some are pastors, but there is no ‘Pastor James.’ Some are deacons, but there is no ‘Deacon Peter.’ Some are apostles, but there is no ‘Apostle Andrew.’ Rather than gaining honor through titles and position, New Testament believers received honor primarily for their service and work (Acts 15:26; Romans 16:1,2,4,12; 1 Corinthians 16:15,16,18; 2 Corinthians 8:18; Philippians 2:29,30; Colossians 1:7; 4:12,13; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:1). The early Christians referred to each other by personal names – Timothy, Paul, Titus, etc. – or referred to an individual’s spiritual character and work: ‘ . . . Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit . . .’ (Acts 6:5); Barnabus, ‘ . . . a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith . . .’ (Acts 11:24); ‘ . . . . Philip the evangelist . . . ‘ (Acts 21:8); ‘Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 16:3); ‘Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you’ (Romans 16:6); etc. The array of ecclesiastical titles accompanying the names of Christian leaders today is completely missing from the New Testament, and would have appalled the apostles and early believers" (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership [Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1986) p.259).

8. The New Testament teaches that Christians are to practice hospitality towards both fellow believers and outsiders (Matthew 25:34-40; Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 6:18; Titus 3:8,14; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9). This being true, why do most of us rarely open our homes to others? Why do so many Christians ignore the physical needs of one another? Why is hospitality a forgotten virtue in most churches? With such an evident lack of love and concern towards others, is it any wonder why so many of our churches are cold and dying?

9. The early church met almost exclusively in homes as opposed to large, religious edifices (Acts 20:20; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon v.2; 2 John v.10). This being true, why do we feel it necessary to spend large sums of the Lord’s money on church buildings and cathedrals which might only be used once or twice a week? Is this being a good steward of the financial resources which God provides? Why do so many churches have a larger budget for building projects, staff salaries, and maintenance than for missions, the poor, and people-oriented ministries? What does this reveal about our priorities?

The truth is, we have inherited traditions and practices within our churches which simply have no basis in the New Testament. Sadly, most of us have never bothered to question or investigate these traditions. But if we are to see genuine church renewal, we must rethink this whole thing called "church" and seek to conform all that we say and do in light of New Testament patterns and principles.

Are you ready for the challenge and willing to "put everything to the test and hold fast to that which is true" (1 Thessalonians 5:21; cf. Acts 17:11)? . . . There is a better way!

Written by Darryl M. Erkel (1994)

Recommended Reading:

Marjorie Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1982).

Greg Ogden, The New Reformation: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).

David C. Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach? (England: Paternoster Press, 1996).

Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1986).

Frank A. Viola, Rethinking the Wineskin (Brandon, FL: Present Testimony Ministry, 1997).

Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers [Revised], 1994).

Del Birkey, The House Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988).

Eric Svendsen, The Table of the Lord (Atlanta, GA: Published by New Testament Restoration Foundation, 1996).

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This is the LORD's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. - Ps 118:23